Although this is the primary spot I give my words air, I also occasionally write in other forums. Dinky online magazines, organization newsletters, Trip Advisor reviews (I have 28,234 points…whatever that means), and the two larger newspapers in my county have all featured my thoughts in one way or another.
Since I don’t have any formal writing or journalistic training, I have relied on my best hunch how to write for these different audiences. My gut says the styles and tones and structures are different. What that exactly means and looks like, I really have no clue. So I take my best guess and write my best words and hope that they serve their purpose well.
The challenging part is when they don’t.
Through a series of conversations, divine timing, and heartbreaking events, I recently was given the opportunity to write a story about a friend whose inspiring battle with cancer ended a couple of weeks before Christmas. The newspaper that ran the story has gone through some pretty major changes since I last wrote for it about three years ago, not the least of which is the editor – my contact – is no longer there.
My new contact is a young man half my age pretty fresh out of journalism school. Which puts his training and on-the-job writing experience leaps and bounds beyond my own.
About a week and a half after JR died, I sat at his dining room table with his wife and a box of Kleenex.
My conversation with Gretchen was both blessed and therapeutic. Although I consider her and her family dear friends, my role as an interviewer allowed me to ask Gretchen questions I had never asked before. I got to know my friends on a different level, with new depth and expanded love.
With a page of notes in purple ink, I arrived home, nestled myself on our couch, and started writing. I had a very clear sense I was simply to write. No outlining, no organizing, no editing. Just writing.
I wasn’t quite sure how to start.
I read a text that JR sent one of his daughters shortly before he died. There was one quote I knew I wanted to use. I typed it into my document just to save it. As soon as JR’s words appeared on the top of my page, I knew I had my opening. The rest came rather easily from there.
I know very little about music. I’ve never played an instrument and I can’t read notes. But I have long sensed that words can be like songs. When I am writing, I often choose a word or insert a period or play around with clauses to impact the flow of my words. When my words and fingers are flowing best, it feels like a song is being composed. I sense pace and rhythm and beats.
As I wrote JR’s story, it became a love song. To him, his wife, and his three daughters. I had been adrift how to support and best love these dear women in their grief and in my own. I had taken food, I had given hugs, I had sent texts, I had even gone to a tattoo parlor (as an observer). But as I started writing, I realized that the one unique, totally personal gift I could give this beloved family was my words.
I sent Gretchen the draft for input and approval, further proving I am not a professional reporter. With a couple minor changes, I sent her and the newspaper my final version along with a carefully chosen photo of JR wearing his favorite sock monkey hat.
My contact thanked me for the piece, asked for a few more photos, and explained he would probably need to edit the article a little. I expected that. I had purposely not asked about word limits or any other guidelines; I knew I needed my words released without distraction. The prior editor had made small but important changes to my past articles. His decades of professional writing experience showed in small but mighty ways, making me even more appreciative of the opportunity to write for him.
JR’s story appeared yesterday.
I scanned the two photos. No sock monkey hat.
I read the article. No sock monkey hat story.
The rest of the words were all mine. No obvious changes, not even to punctuation. But the order was all different. Paragraphs that had been at the end were now at the beginning. Things were all jumbled around. What had once been an unfolding story of a goofy but Godly life concluding softly with a funeral bathed in tie dye and camouflage was now a choppy series of moments and memories that started with the funeral and ended even more abruptly.
I suppose to a newspaper person, I had “buried the lead.” To them, the story was probably the uniquely fun dying request of a man to have all attendees at his funeral wear either tie dye or camouflage. So they moved that part to the beginning and cut and pasted the rest in some order that made sense to them. It’s their newspaper. It’s their right and their job.
While the logical side of me understands the changes, the creative side of me is heartbroken. Those are my words but it’s no longer my song. The gift I wanted to give to Gretchen and her daughters has been rewrapped and repackaged.
Writing is a personal, vulnerable endeavor. Especially when you are sharing your heart. Which is pretty much what I always do when I write. A writer disagreeing with an editor is hardly novel. For those who write for a living, I imagine it’s as much a part of the experience as deadlines are. Which is one more reason why I am so in awe of people who carve a career from writing…and why I can’t imagine ever doing so myself.
JR's Story -- A Celebration of a Goofy, Godly Life
“Cancer’s gift is perspective. I’ve been given the last three years to spend time with my family and friends that many don’t get. I plan to keep living every day I have left as the blessing I’m being given.”
JR Roberts texted those words to his oldest daughter Kayleigh the day after Thanksgiving, just a few short weeks before his hard fought battle against Mantle Cell Lymphoma ended on December 12, 2016.
JR – who was not a fan of his given name of Wilford and went by the letters “JR” since a cousin already claimed the moniker “Junior” – spent most of his 47 years in Battle Ground. The only time spent living outside his home town was when JR was in the Marines training and then serving as a Combat Engineer in Iraq during the Gulf War. He graduated from Battle Ground High School in 1987. He was known to more recent Tigers as the owner and driving instructor at 1st Choice Driving School who loved to wear tie dye t-shirts.
JR met his wife of 26 years while they were both in high school. Gretchen remembers first meeting her love on a Friday night in April 1984.
“My friend Linda wanted to go hang out with a new boy named Tom. Tom brought along a friend named JR. The first time I saw JR, I was on a 3-wheeler and he was leaning up against a dirt bike.” To those who knew JR as an adult, his choice of resting post comes as little surprise.
JR loved hunting and being outdoors. He taught all three of his daughters (Kayleigh, 24; Melanie, 21; and Hannah, 18) how to hunt and fish. Many childhood photos and memories of his girls are clothed in camouflage and blaze orange. During the three years since his cancer diagnosis, JR put a priority on spending quality time with friends and family – often in the fields and woods of Arizona, Texas, and Washington hunting for deer or wild pigs.
JR was blessed to experience some life milestones during his three-year cancer fight.
In June 2015, he and Gretchen took a cruise to Alaska. It was a long-held promise and the first vacation the couple had ever taken by themselves.
In September 2015, JR walked his daughter Kayleigh down the aisle at her wedding. Both father and daughter had hankies as they danced to “Butterfly Kisses” by Bob Carlisle.
This past summer, JR and Gretchen took a meandering road trip without deadlines or itineraries. They ate BBQ in Kansas City, visited Mount Rushmore and Sturgis in South Dakota, paid their respects at the memorial for fallen police officers in Dallas, trekked into Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, survived JR’s first-ever tram ride to Sandia Peak near Albuquerque, and dutifully put arms and legs in four states at once at Four Corners.
Despite at least seven different types of chemotherapy, countless chemo treatments, and a stem cell transplant that left him quarantined at OHSU for one month, JR never lost sight of his goal to bring laughter and happiness to those around him.
"I'm at the point in my life where having fun and making people laugh are more important than being boring and worrying what people think,” JR explained when a photo of him wearing his favorite sock monkey hat appeared on Facebook. He would often wear the hat when he was busy working on weighty projects, to make sure nobody took things too seriously.
JR was also known as a prankster. Friends and family quickly smile and cry from laughter with stories involving JR setting off fireworks near a friend’s camping trailer, pantsing his brother-in-law in public, and giving his driving students a few extra life lessons along the way.
In the midst of the fun and goofiness, JR had a strong Christian faith. He profoundly believed that God loves everyone and forgives each person, no matter what transgressions we make in our lives. JR strove to extend this same forgiveness to those around him and to live by the Golden Rule of treating others the way he wished to be treated.
JR’s memorial service was held on December 17, 2016 at his home church in Battle Ground. Cherry Grove Friends Church was filled to capacity with friends, family, former co-workers, and past students. The ripples of JR’s life extended far as people traveled from throughout the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and Pennsylvania to celebrate and honor the impact of his life.
JR did not want his funeral to be one of sadness, crying, and somber black clothing. Instead, per his request, all those in attendance wore either camouflage or tie dye (what JR referred to as “urban camo”), many for the first time. Despite inevitable tears of sadness, there was much laughter and joy at seeing such a colorful clash of fashion. Just as JR wanted.
The family respectfully asks that any donations to celebrate JR Roberts’ life be made to a place very dear to his heart: Twin Rock Friends Camp, PO Box 6, Rockaway Beach, OR 97136